x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Embassytown: Fable of colonialism

China Miéville's novel Embassytown is about a human outpost set up on a remote planet to trade with the powerful and mysterious "Hosts".

On a planet at the far edge of explored space sits Embassytown, a human outpost set up to trade with the powerful and mysterious "Hosts".

These insectile creatures are virtuosos of biological engineering, and though they speak with two voices simultaneously, a quirk of their own evolution has left them incapable of lying. Humans communicate with them via special ambassadors, pairs of identical twins bred for mutual empathy and trained to speak in unison. Yet when the galaxy's regional hegemon sends Embassytown a mismatched and feuding pair of diplomats, the Hosts' initial amazement swiftly develops into something more complex.

This is of course a fable of colonialism, albeit a more ambiguous one than might be expected of an author who once ran for parliament for Britain's Socialist Alliance. As ever with Miéville the influences are pretty obvious, and pretty tasteful. In the ornate specifics of his aliens, one might find a trace of Greg Egan's more rigorous speculations. More prominently, there's a lot of M John Harrison in the grimy listlessness of the world of Embassytown, the fatalistic sense that humanity's irrationalism remains intact among the stars.